Tales from Suburban Bohemia: Speedway Grand Prix
This post originally appeared on Stumpy Moose on 23 July, 2002, and was migrated to PraguePig.com on 5 April, 2020.
You’ve probably never heard of Tomasz Gollob but I spent Saturday night with several thousand people who think he’s some kind of god.
For some reason the Poles are fanatical about speedway. Huge numbers of flag-waving, face-painted fans flock south every July for the Speedway Grand Prix and Gollob is their hero.
There were also pockets of Swedish support, and some British speedway fans, but the only locals at the Marketa Stadium seemed to be working there.
Speedway has a fairly big following in the Czech Republic so this was probably an economic issue. Grand Prix tickets start at around nine pounds each, which is crazy money by local standards – even for an affluent Westerner such as myself.
Luckily, however, a former colleague was able to arrange press passes for me and my friend.
If anybody questioned our credentials, we had to say that we were working for The European and hope that nobody in the Czech speedway community had noticed that the paper closed down several years ago.
In a sold-out stadium, our more immediate concern was finding a spot where we could get an unobstructed view of the track.
We quickly gave up, however, and opted for the convenience of an obstructed view directly between the scoreboard and a beer tent.
The racing, and the drinking, began in earnest. Amid the speed, the noise and the smell of burning rubber it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement, even if we couldn’t see much of what was going on.
You’re supposed to be able to identify the riders by the colour of their helmets. Differentiating between a white helmet and a yellow helmet, at dusk, at distance, while trying to avoid getting your eyes poked out by a drunken face-painted Pole waving a flag on the end of a fishing rod can be tricky though.
Grasping the labyrinthine structure of the event’s preliminary heats was also a struggle. Twenty-four riders take part in a total of 25 races, culminating in the grand final. Before that, however, there’s a lot of “fourth place rider in Heat 4 goes to Heat 5 in yellow.” The beer probably didn’t help.
Despite all this, I enjoyed my first speedway experience, especially the chunky JCBs that smooth over the dirt between heats, Zamboni-style. It wasn’t a good night for our Polish friends though.
There was a bad omen halfway through the evening, when the crowd finally turned against the man with the flag, grabbing his rod and snapping it in two.
At first, I thought there was going to be violence but the man seemed more upset than angry and had to be consoled by a face-painted friend.
Gollob wasn’t looking good either, and along with the other Poles, he failed to make the semi-finals.
Gradually the less fanatical Polish fans began to drift away, leaving a hardcore, among them a man with an amateur tattoo of a jester on his shoulder who seemed to spend the entire evening queueing for beer.
Jason Crump, an Australian who normally rides with Manchester’s Belle Vue Aces, won the grand final, but with no Poles in contention the atmosphere had fallen a little flat.
The remaining Poles returned to their cars and buses and headed north, disappointed.
They’ll be back next July.